An extended Reading the Bestsellers review of a 2021 novel by Mitch Albom
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Book by Mitch Albom. HarperCollins, 2021. 271 pages. $29 (e-book $16, audio $24)
In a tumultuous sea of uncertainty and change, it’s natural to feel adrift. However, as American author Mitch Albom demonstrates in his stirring new novel, faith can lift us up in the most daunting circumstances.
Exploring the intriguing premise of what would happen if Jesus returned today during a time of need, the novel follows a group of shipwreck survivors as they navigate the open ocean in a small raft. Lost with limited supplies, they struggle to cope with their fears, grappling with the imminent possibility of death, while reconciling with their past lives, learning to use what time they have to make amends.
Just when things seem most desperate, an enigmatic man swims to the raft, curiously unscarred, unlike the weathered, wounded crewmembers. To their astonishment, he says he is the Lord, arriving to personally answer their prayers.
Even while witnessing what are apparently miracles, signs pointing to the validity of the man’s claims, the crew contend with doubt. Each is hurting in their own way, but learning to let go of what weighs them down. Holding onto God instead, they can come to terms with who they are, or could be, after their voyage with the Lord.
Though similar to Albom’s previous works in its inspirational tone, particularly in dealing with themes of faith and doubt when unexplainable events occur in the modern world, The Stranger in the Lifeboat is more emotionally raw and gripping, blurring the line between the earthly and mystical as it leads readers from one turn to the next in the journey, a mystery shifting between land and sea. It is comparable to William Paul Young’s The Shack in its treatment of Christ’s humanity, turning tables by fleshing out the Lord in fresh ways that impart an intimate, multifaceted portrait of God’s love for His children.
Albom sketches out the events of Jesus’ life, perhaps most faithfully by crystallizing the element of surprise, the impossible that can happen through choosing belief instead of being haunted by the past. The author’s characterization of the crewmembers is notable in capturing the internal complexity of humanity, examining how the moral compass of each person can lead them astray, or chart their course towards the light, following the Star whose place in the heavens is unchanging.
Through the characters’ interwoven stories, Albom tackles strikingly relevant questions: What does it mean to live versus to survive? What do we salvage from the debris of the present when the future is bleakly indiscernible? And how do we respond when God appears silent, the answers to our prayers not coming as we had anticipated?
There are important lessons offered here, pearls of wisdom gradually gleaned. Albom reminds that “being quiet and being invisible are not the same thing” (170). As the characters themselves underscore, nothing is what it seems. When seeing through eyes of faith, a whole new vision of God emerges. Readjusting the lens to see what God gives as a gift in every moment, we can see God in all that is around us. He’s neither invisible, nor a stranger.
Written like a parable with nautical imagery and symbolism, where the setting itself becomes a character, The Stranger in the Lifeboat addresses universal human suffering as vast and far-reaching as the sea, while further exhibiting how the transcendent breadth of God’s love can heal such pain.
Each character reacts differently to their circumstances, and to how God works in them. They come to see that they are interlinked, anchored by faith. Finding common identity in Christ, they are literally and figuratively in the same boat, moving forward by sharing light with each other. Over the horizon, past despair’s depths, another sunrise awaits, the miracle of redemption. In illuminating this overarching love of God that carries us, The Stranger in the Lifeboat provides much-needed hope to keep us afloat.
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